Symptoms and Treatment of Sleep Apnea in Babies

Sleep apnea in babies is a medical problem that requires attention. This kind of irregular snoring could in fact be a major breathing disorder.
Symptoms and Treatment of Sleep Apnea in Babies
Leonardo Biolatto

Written and verified by the doctor Leonardo Biolatto.

Last update: 27 May, 2022

Sleep apnea in babies can become a concern for some parents. First, it’s important to know that this problem is about more than snoring, and it often begins right after birth. However, the breathing disorder we’re about to discuss in today’s article happens mainly during periods of rest.

Obstructive sleep apnea in babies occurs when their breathing stops for a moment. This interruption may be partial, with some remaining air passage, or total, without oxygen exchange while it lasts.

That’s where the seriousness of this condition comes from. Thus, it requires immediate attention and treatment. This is because many bodily functions, including those of the brain, disrupt when there’s no entry and exit of those gases required for the metabolism to function.

Keep reading to find out more about this condition and its possible treatments.

The causes of obstructive sleep apnea in babies

The origin of this problem in young children lies in the anatomy of their upper airway. A child’s airway is smaller than an adult’s and its limited diameter can collapse due to the flexibility of the trachea.

Some babies have a narrower upper airway than others either due to their own anatomy or due to recurring infections. Also, a small trachea with limited cartilage isn’t the same as that with an enlarged tonsil.

One of the most common causes of this condition is tonsil hypertrophy. This lymphoid defense tissue might increase its size and prevent the proper transit of air into the body, especially when lying down.

The shape of the lower jaw is also a risk factor. The shape of the air access door on children with smaller facial bones is different and it’s harder for it to move within.

Overweight babies have a double complicating factor. On the one hand, the fat that accumulates in the neck puts pressure on the windpipe. On the other one, their tongue increases in size and falls backward when they’re asleep.

Furthermore, children with cerebral palsy are a special case. This is because one of the characteristics of this pathology is a looser muscle tone that facilitates the obstruction of the airway in them.

A baby sleeping.
There are several risk factors associated with the presence of sleep apnea in babies. Being overweight is one of them.

You might like to read about some Interesting Facts About Snoring You Should Know

Noticeable symptoms of the disorder

The signs and symptoms of obstructive sleep apnea in babies surround the respiratory system. Snoring is the main one. These infants snore excessively and often as loud as an adult.

In turn, snoring is usually accompanied by a stoppage of breathing and rhythm. Apnea happens when there’s no inspiration or expiration and pulmonary mechanics suspend momentarily.

Parents or caregivers often detect this phenomenon but it goes unnoticed at times. This doesn’t mean you must constantly check if your little ones are breathing when they’re asleep. It does mean you should pay attention from time to time, particularly to their sounds.

Babies with obstructive sleep apnea breathe through the mouth rather than through their nose, as this mechanism facilitates the entry of a greater volume of air. Also, it dries out the oral and nasal mucosa, increasing thirst and nighttime awakenings.

Long-term effects of obstructive sleep apnea in babies

What are the consequences of poor rest and poor oxygen intake during sleep?

Well, babies with this disorder tend to be hyperactive during the day, which establishes a higher caloric expenditure. In turn, it can delay proper weight progression when not adequately supplemented.

A baby with obstructive sleep apnea is also at risk of early alterations in their incipient teeth. According to an article in Revista de la Asociacion Mexicana, bruxism or grinding of teeth is more common among children with sleep problems.

There are also longer-term consequences that carry all the way through adolescence and adulthood for those who suffered from apnea as infants. They’re more likely to develop high blood pressure and cardiovascular disease. However, this is most prevalent in obese children.

A sleepy baby.
Babies with sleep apnea are more hyperactive during the day. Consequently, their caloric expenditure is higher.

Find out more about How to Calm Your Baby’s Hiccups

Possible treatments

The options for treating obstructive sleep apnea in babies are many and varied, and not all treating medical teams agree on which ones to use at all times. Among the strategies available there are:

  • Nasal corticosteroids, or medications for topical use for congestion in the nasal mucosa. They work in cases of rhinitis, and should always be prescribed by a doctor.
  • Adenoid surgery or an adenoidectomy is the route of choice for children in whom tonsillar hypertrophy is detected.
  • Hygienic and dietary measures can improve mild cases, so adjustments in their habits are highly recommended. For example, adjust the position when the child is lying down, their sleeping schedule, the distribution of their meals, and their distance from the bedtime.
  • CPAP equipment is reserved for severe cases that don’t improve with any previous alternative. It consists of an injection of positive air pressure through the respiratory route to force oxygen to reach the lungs in the appropriate amount. This is usually the last resource.

Is obstructive sleep apnea in babies a reason for alarm?

Don’t panic if your baby receives this diagnosis, but do begin treatment promptly. The infant development period is important because it sets the basis for the rest of their life.

Correct any disorders quickly and you’ll avoid serious problems in the future. Your pediatrician should be able to advise on the best treatment alternatives and what you can do daily to improve the situation.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Katz ES, Mitchell RB, D’Ambrosio CM. Obstructive sleep apnea in infants. Am J Respir Crit Care Med. 2012;185(8):805-816. doi:10.1164/rccm.201108-1455CI
  • Jofré, David, and Karen García. “Hipertrofia de amígdala lingual y apnea obstructiva del sueño en población pediátrica: Una asociación a considerar.” Revista de otorrinolaringología y cirugía de cabeza y cuello 77.3 (2017): 326-334.
  • Pérez, César Enrique Arreaga, et al. “Síndrome de apnea del sueño en pediatría.” RECIMUNDO 3.3 (2019): 201-223.
  • Carrillo-Alduenda, José Luis, et al. “Diferencias clínicas entre preescolares y escolares con apnea obstructiva del sueño.” Acta Pediátrica de México 40.6 (2020): 318-327.
  • Álvarez, ML Alonso, and R. Mínguez Verdejo. “Trastornos respiratorios del sueño. Síndrome de apnea-hipoapnea del sueño en la infancia.” PediatríaIntegral (2018): 422.
  • Dios Teigell, Sara de. Relación entre la obstrucción de la vía aérea, apnea del sueño, déficit de atención e hiperactividad y la oclusión dentaria en la población escolar. Diss. Universidad Complutense de Madrid, 2020.
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  • Urquhart D. Investigation and management of childhood sleep apnoea. Hippokratia. 2013;17(3):196-202.
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  • Pinto VL, Sharma S. Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) [Updated 2020 Jun 1]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2020 Jan-. Available from:

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.